Even the most optimistic Bulls fan has to be excited about the way Derrick Rose has come out of the gates in the preseason. He’s relentlessly attacking the rim while averaging almost a point per minute and it’s apparent Rose is not worried about his surgically-repaired left knee with the way he throws his body into contact and finishes strong at the rim. Oh, and did I forget to mention he’s shooting just under 50 percent from the 3-point line? D-Rose is back, and that means the Bulls are a legitimate championship contender again.
But is Rose still one of the top five players in the NBA? Oddsmakers at Bovada listed Rose as their third-best choice for league MVP this season with 11:2 odds, behind only LeBron James (3:2) and Kevin Durant (4:1). It’s only a small sample size, but Rose has shown me enough in five preseason games to earn my vote as the best all-around guard in the league.
Here’s a look at my rankings of the NBA’s top 20 players heading into the 2013-14 season:
1. LeBron James, SF, MIA: Unquestionably the best player in the world after leading Miami to back-to-back NBA titles. He’s now dominating the league the way Jordan did in the 90s, and those fourth-quarter disappearing acts are a thing of the past. Adds something to his game every season and also is outstanding on the defensive end.
2. Kevin Durant, SF, OKC: The best pure scorer in the league, capable of dropping in 30-plus points per night with relative ease. At 6-foot-10, he’s a nightmare matchup for any defender. Now the challenge is making his teammates better and giving Oklahoma City a realistic shot at winning a championship.
3. Derrick Rose, PG, CHI: Virtually unguardable with his combination of speed, strength and explosiveness. Improved outside shooting touch during his long rehab, and is working on becoming a better player on the defensive end. Rose’s ability to break down opposing defenses should set up much easier shots for his teammates this season.
4. Chris Paul, PG, LAC: Probably the best pure point guard in the league, but capable of scoring 25 to 30 points when needed. His all-around skills have brought out the best in the Clippers’ young big men. With the addition of shooters like J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, Clippers should compete for Western Conference championship.
5. Carmelo Anthony, SF, NYK: Gets criticism for being a one-dimensional player, but, boy, can this guy score. Strong and relentless at 6-foot-8, capable of playing either forward position and breaking down any 1-on-1 matchup. Challenge for Anthony will be using his individual talents to make Knicks a threat in the top-heavy East.
6. James Harden, SG, HOU: How much does Thunder general manager Sam Presti regret making that trade with Houston now? Harden has supplanted Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade as the best shooting guard in the league, capable of knocking down 3-pointers and beating defenders off the dribble. Only question is will his scoring drop with the addition of Dwight Howard?
7. Dwight Howard, C, HOU: Speaking of the Rockets’ big man, will he be ready to reassert his dominance after two years of whining and underachieving in Orlando and L.A.? Still the number one defensive intimdator in the league, capable of changing games with his rebounding and shot-blocking. If Howard improves his free-throw shooting, he should get back to averaging around 20 points per game.
8. Russell Westbrook, PG: OKC: Suffered a setback early in training camp which required another surgical procedure on his injured knee. But Westbrook should be back by December, terrorizing defenses with his speed and explosive drives to the basket. Shot selection can be an issue, but if Westbrook and Durant are clicking by playoff time, Thunder can win the West.
9. Dwyane Wade, SG, MIA: Bothered by knee problems in recent years, but still capable of taking over games. Wade came up big when the Heat needed him most during last season’s playoffs, and after dropping about 15 pounds in the off-season, he’s looked quicker and more explosive in the preseason. If Wade can turn back the clock, Heat could be unbeatable.
10. Kevin Love, PF, MIN: The best shooting big man in the league, and that includes Dirk Nowitzki. Love’s 2012-’13 season was wrecked by injury, but he’s determined to come back in a big way. Love is also a force on the glass, attacking the backboards on both ends. He’s capable of averaging 25 and 12 this season and carrying the Timberwolves to the playoffs.
11. Kobe Bryant, SG, LAL: I know he’s coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon and has a lot of miles on those tires after 17 NBA seasons, but Kobe Bryant is the ultimate competitor. He might miss the first few weeks of the season, but he’ll find a way to score 20-plus points on willpower and veteran savvy alone.
12. Tony Parker, PG, SAS: Don’t undervalue his role in helping Spurs to three championships over the last decade. Still one of the quickest players in the league and a perfect floor general for Gregg Popovich’s offense. Parker increased his scoring whenever the Spurs needed last season, and he’ll be ready to do it again this year.
[BULLS: Boozer stays aggressive vs. Bucks]
13. Blake Griffin, PF, LAC: He’s the ultimate finisher running the fast break with Chris Paul in L.A. Griffin still needs to improve his post-up game and outside shooting, but he should get better shot opportunities with Doc Rivers now in charge, running a more sophisticated offense than what the Clippers had under Vinny Del Negro.
14. Paul George, SF, Indiana: The Pacers’ swingman came out of nowhere to make the All-Star team a year ago, and now it appears the sky is the limit. George is a talented 1-on-1 scorer and also a lock-down defender, capable of guarding four different positions. Larry Bird hit a home run when he drafted George out of Fresno State in 2010.
15. Steph Curry, SG, GSW: Unquestionably the best 3-point shooter in the league and an underrated ball handler. Curry took the Warriors to new heights last season, and with a better supporting cast Golden State could be even better this year.
16. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, POR: Doesn’t get enough credit playing on a mediocre team in Portland. Can play power forward and center, and give you 21 points and 8-to-10 rebounds almost every night. Too bad the Bulls didn’t keep Aldridge when they drafted him No. 2 in 2006, and immediately flipped him in a pre-arranged deal for Tyrus Thomas.
17. Marc Gasol, C, MEM: Probably the second best center in the league right now behind Howard. An underrated passer and defender, Gasol’s talents were a perfect fit in Lionel Hollins’ system in Memphis. The Grizzlies changed coaches, but Gasol’s role figures to stay the same, providing his team whatever it needs to be successful.
18. Deron Williams, PG, BRK: The former Illini star was slowed by an ankle injury last season, but he’s still one of the best all-around guards in the league. Williams is an excellent floor general, capable of running the Nets’ offense with precision, while also hitting big shots down the stretch. Will his role diminish with arrival of Garnett and Pierce?
19. Kyrie Irving, PG, CLE: Another of the new wave of outstanding young point guards. Irving has a lot of D-Rose in his game, and if he can avoid the injury bug, should take a major step forward this season with a Cavaliers’ team that’s capable of making the playoffs.
20 (tie). Dirk Nowitzki, PF, DAL/Tim Duncan, PF, SAS: Couldn’t choose between two veteran All-Stars, who still are difference makers in their mid-30’s. If not for the Spurs’ inability to grab a defensive rebound in the final 30 seconds of Game 6 in Miami, Duncan would have won his 5th NBA championship last spring, and Dirk is still capable of scoring 25 points a game, and hitting clutch shots down the stretch.